By the winter of 2009, my venerable 1976 Guild F-512 12 string was in desperate need of attention. In addition to needing a neck reset and a fret job, sadly the top had dried out in places producing a washboard-like effect of raised grain, and the finish on the soundboard had chipped, crazed, cracked or worn off sufficiently to warrant serious consideration. I determined the options before me were:
- 1. Do nothing and attempt to convince myself all this was part of the ‘charm’ of owning a 35 year old guitar
- 2. Perform a fret job, shave the bridge to avoid a neck reset, add a new nut and saddle and live with the cosmetic issues
- 3. Reset the neck, perform a fret job and complete setup and live with the cosmetic issues
- 4. Have someone else perform some combination of the above on my behalf
For reasons still unknown, I chose to be inventive and selected a (disastrous) variation of options 2 and 4. Instead of doing the work myself, I contacted a local guitar repair shop. The proprietor had worked for a well-respected local luthier and repairman, someone who had worked on my guitars years earlier, and who had indicated to me he was trying to get away from the business for health reasons. I conveyed my desire(s) regarding my 12 string to this former colleague of his who was quite familiar with Guild guitars and authorized an effort to correct finish issues as well as set up the guitar.
A year later...
Oh, the horror!
It is astonishing how quickly time can pass, especially when an instrument repair is involved. Several phone calls over several months eventually led to the delivery of my guitar. The fingerboard had been reduced to nearly half it’s original thickness. The entire guitar was now (spray tinted) a horrific mustard yellow, and the soundboard had visual thick / thin, high / low peaks and valleys where it had been hand sanded using fingertips instead of a sanding block. In three words: it was ruined!
My New Challenge:
Without going into details, after heavy consideration and consultation it was determined there was little to no recourse option available. The entire scenario was screaming Caveat Emptor and I was stuck with an instrument that was in worse condition than when I started. My options, this time:
- 1. Do nothing and attempt to convince myself I was getting what I deserve for making such a bad decision
- 2. Attempt a repair/overhaul myself
- 3. Seek professional help (lol)
Of course I had to make it right, as I was unwilling to live with this guitar in such condition. I had very little free time to devote to this guitar, so I opted for the latter and contacted the Guild Custom Shop (owned by Fender at the time) to share my tale of woe. They were most sympathetic, as only seasoned guitar players / repairmen / luthiers can be (sarcasm intended \:~})
I shipped them my 12 string for evaluation and impatiently awaited their findings. I didn’t have long to wait. The call came, and I am convinced I could hear screams in the background. I was certain they were a reaction due to the sight of my guitar, but was unable to discern if the sounds were the result of sheer horror or from the pain of extended, gasping-for-air, roll-on-the-floor laughter over what I had done. Regardless, these guys were great, and confirmed the soundboard had been destroyed from hand sanding (it was paper-thin in places). They thought the mustard yellow tinting was ‘creative’ and also wondered if there may have been consciousness-altering chemicals present during the artistic portion of the endeavor.
We talked at length and I determined to have them do as much as was necessary to correct the damage. We would replace the soundboard, matching the original bracing pattern and, since the neck had to be removed anyway, it would get reset to the proper angle when reattached. A new fingerboard was required, and a new bridge would be necessary. I figured we might as well refresh all the plastic bindings on the body and neck while we had the chance. My custom requests involved upgrading the wood selection for the soundboard and adding Paua, one ring around the soundhole, and another around the top edge of the body. The entire guitar would get a new nitrocellulose lacquer finish. The estimate for the work was quite reasonable and I authorized the repair.
The new top:
Just a few short months later I heard a terrifying rumor: the Guild Custom Shop was to be closed - forever! I contacted the guys there and confirmed it was true. Some folks were relocating to the new Guild factory in New Hartford, CT while others were retiring or pursuing other opportunities. The short version: my 12 string was the last instrument out the door before the shop closed!
My new (old) 12 string:
Just the right amount of Paua!
But the story isn’t over, yet!
I fitted the F-512 with an L.R Baggs Anthem pickup (replaced recently with a James May Ultra Tonic pickup, see my article here ) and played the guitar for about a year before growing dissatisfied with the fingerboard, both mechanically and aesthetically. The new fingerboard had a tight 12″ radius and was fitted with nickel fretwire. I determined to refret the guitar, altering the radius to a combination of the rounder 12″ at the first fret and graduating to a flatter 20″ as I moved toward the bridge, an approach referred to as a compound radius. I refretted the guitar with EVO Gold fretwire (a super-hard material and tough on my tools, but really pretty stuff!). I made a new bone nut and saddle and adjusted the action as low as I could get it for my style of playing. What a guitar!
Before (nickel frets on a 12″ radius):
After (gold frets on a 12/20″ compound radius):
* Overhaul Note: I lost all fear of altering so-called vintage instruments long ago, as I came to believe I could improve on many of them. While I would leave a bona fide collector’s item alone (that is an entirely different discussion), there are a serious number of guitars that are fair game for (my understanding of) improvement. That is not to imply that such efforts are always going to be cost-effective or economically viable. While they are largely labors of love, breathing new life into old guitars is incredibly rewarding. They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder. When it comes to finishes, I do not subscribe to the notion that older looks better simply because it’s older. In fact, I am quite convinced of the opposite: a new finish on an old guitar makes an old guitar look - well - new! Regarding tone (issues of collectability aside), if you are certain that your 40-(plus)-year-old lacquer sounds better than any finish available today, and refinishing your guitar will destroy it’s tone, I won’t try to convince you otherwise. But I can no longer believe such a thing, as I have witnessed too many cases where the opposite is true. Most builders consider a finish to be a necessary evil, successfully protecting the delicate wood underneath while supplying a measurable muting or damping factor. A few will argue that a finish could play a positive role in the overall tone of the guitar, while acknowledging that any such contribution would be minuscule, at best. What we do know for certain is the primary role of the finish is that of a protectant, not a tone generator. The soundboard plays the most significant role in the overall tone of the guitar and in many older factory-built guitars the soundboards are simply over-built. The tops are too thick, the braces are too big and the finish is applied too heavily. If, like me, you see any room for improvement in your old guitar, then an overhaul may be in you and your guitar’s future!